Tag Archives: minimalism

Podcasts 101

I’ve recently got into podcasts. Despite my relatively new-found simple living enthusiasm, (and therefore new-found guilt over anything that vaguely resembles multitasking,) I really love listening to them when I’m walking the dog, or preparing something long and slightly tedious in the kitchen. Actually at the moment, everything in the kitchen seems long and very tedious but never mind…. I find them far more rewarding to listen to than reading a blog post, which I only ever seem to skim through. I’ve also discovered I really enjoy listening to them when I run. I recently did the Coatesville Classic Half Marathon and my “training” runs (such was they were) were less painful with some interesting subject matter to listen to, rather than just a somewhat clichéd playlist.

I’ve found three that I regularly follow so thought I’d give them a plug…

  1. Happier with Gretchen Rubin

No surprises here, Gretchen groupie that I am. I loved this podcast from the first episode. She hosts it with her sister, who she talks about in her books. They seem genuinely quite close, although they live on opposite sides of the US and have very different lives, careers and, seemingly, personalities. Their discussions are very much based around the themes of Gretchen’s books about happiness (obviously) and habits, so a lot of the content is familiar to me. Despite this, and what I find quite impressive, it doesn’t get boring. Each episode is divided into well-defined segments and those segments appear each episode. This may not seem like such a bit deal but several of the podcasts I’ve tried and given up on really fall down for their lack of structure. They pretty much consist of two people wittering on for an hour about a subject they consider themselves qualified to talk about, but really, it’s just like eavesdropping on a conversation you’re not able to join in, and most of the time, don’t really want to anyway. So, “Happier”, I’m hooked!

  1. The Slow Home Podcast with Brooke McAlary

I wasn’t too sure about this one when I started but it’s grown on me. Australian slow living enthusiast Brooke McAlary (who I’d never heard of before I found her blog and then podcast) hosts a weekly discussion that usually consists of an interview with a guest. The guests vary in their degree of interest, relevance (to me anyway) and notoriety- they have been as mundane as a self-proclaimed “normal” person, who was simply a narcissistic podcast listener who put herself forward to be interviewed under the misapprehension that other people might be interested in her “story”- groan…. and as well-known as (can you guess?) Gretchen Rubin and Bea Johnson. When I first started listening I was a little irritated by the casual colloquialism of the podcast- I thought it made it sound a bit amateurish. The 5-10 minute intro she does with her husband, which generally includes a bit of giggling and silly couple’s jokes as well as occasional interruptions from their kids only exacerbates that. But as I’ve stuck with it I’ve got used to the (?over-) familiar introductory chit-chat and besides, the real meat of the podcast is in the people she talks to and most of the interviews (narcissistic listener aside) have been really interesting. She actually does a pretty good job (not that I’m exactly qualified to say!) as an interviewer, and I think (without wanting to sound patronising) she’s really improved since I started listening. So for now I’ll keep it on my playlist!

  1. Eliza Starting at 16

Ok so the ONLY reason I started following this one is because she’s (I’m really sorry) Gretchen Rubin’s daughter! Yep, and she’s 16, so I feel even more tragic. I didn’t sign up for this one straight away but I gave it a go and I’ve kind of been drawn in. Partly because it’s short but also because I’m actually quite impressed by how articulate and intelligent she appears to be, without sounding too precocious. Her venting over 16 year old “issues” in some ways reminds me of my own 16 year old angst (well to be perfectly honest, it resembles more the 16 year old I wish I had been). Occasionally she even hits the nail right on the head and articulates, very eloquently, grievances I still share. For instance, her vent about pop-music snobbery and how everyone’s too cool and too intellectual listening to alternative indie music to admit they find Top 40 cheese quite catchy. As soon as she said it I thought “Yes! That’s exactly how I felt all through uni and sometimes even now!!” Anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s not for everyone (the podcast, not just Top 40 music), but I like it.

And that’s it, I’ve tried and tossed about 10 others but I can’t be bothered moaning about those!

Reflections on 2015

And so we near the end of another year. That’s 2 (and a bit) years I’ve been (very sporadically) blogging!

My views on New Year’s Resolutions have varied from year to year but what I always enjoy is looking back on the year that was. The Facebook gimmick “Your Year in Review” has already appeared and people are beginning to share their yearly summaries. If this replaces the annual “Christmas newsletter” a lot of people send out, I think there’d be a sigh of relief from many reluctant recipients, but weirdly, I don’t actually mind getting those letters, I even like reading the details that really don’t concern me, about people I barely know.

(What always impresses me, though, is that people have enough self-confidence to send these things out, knowing how they are received by the majority of people, which is one reason it’s not something I do.)

So, 2015- what sticks in my mind?

More travel- this year we explored Marlborough at the top of the South Island and beautiful Martinborough at the bottom of the North, catching the ferry in between. I think we only managed 3 trips to our beloved Queenstown, once in March for Mr L’s off-road marathon, the Motatapu Classic, once in August to ski and then we’ll be back there next week for Christmas. I made several trips across the ditch- 2 to Melbourne for work and 2 to Sydney. We did a couple of local weekends away too- to Russell & Northland, Waitomo caves (twice) and just last weekend to Waiheke Island. Our list of places to visit and revisit seems to be ever-expanding, and if 2016 is to be our last year living here, we’d like to make some headway into that list!

Of course, our beautiful Baby L arrived in May and he has been a delight and a privilege to have completing our family. In many ways, seeing him change so fast has made both Mr L and myself all the more aware of the idiosyncrasies (amusing and not-so) of Master and Miss L, as we see them change and realise just how fleeting their stages of growth and development are.

This year has been a big year for me in terms of mindset, with determined forays into mindfulness (my favourite champion of this cause so far being Dan Harris) and happiness (I’ve become something of a Gretchen groupie). I feel that my/our Zero Waste dabblings (inspired largely by Bea Johnson) are, in many ways, an extension (or perhaps combination) of these two ways of thinking. I’ve become so much more aware of our impact on the earth and of the earth’s impact on us and I suppose you could say I’ve spent some time getting to know my inner hippie and seeing just how a simpler way of living, spending, thinking and doing frees up so much time for taking notice of what matters and what lasts.

On that note, as I look back through my calendar I’m surprise to see there aren’t a lot of scheduled events, for a year that has felt so full and formative. I think that’s because you don’t write down the little things- cherry picking with Master and Miss L in January, losing Miss L (ok only very briefly) on a plane in August, someone walking off with Baby L in the supermarket trolley (hmmm, maybe I need to start paying attention to my children more!), Master L astounding us one day by casually announcing he was going to write his name- and then doing it! Me falling off the side of a cliff while skiing, drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon in the Fork and Tap in Arrowtown (Miss L developing quite a taste for it too!), the feeling I had opening a box of macarons and a spa voucher as a “thank you” present from Mr L, playing Calon Lan to try and get Baby L back to sleep at 3am, getting both feet off the floor (not for long!) in crow pose…. And so on.

A few weeks ago we watched “Inside Out”. Since then, Mr L has talked about generating “core memories” for our kids. I agree, that’s important, but from a slighty more selfish point of view, I’m very happy to look after them in my own memory bank for now!

Here’s to 2015…. x

Happier at Home

I’ve become quite fond of Gretchen. Since reading The Happiness Project and attempting my own (and therein gaining a newfound respect for her diligence to such a project) I’ve been listening to her podcast Happier and I’ve read (and really enjoyed) Better Than Before.

I was wandering around my local library the other day (not quite deliberately enough to call it browsing) when I came across her book Happier At Home. I’ve never really had a great urge to read this one- for a while I thought it was the same as The Happiness Project but with a different cover or title, as some books seem to have for various international versions. But after seeing it there in front of me and reading the back to make sure it wasn’t the same as The Happiness Project, I thought “Let’s give it a whirl!” so I borrowed it. (I love libraries, they satisfy my penchant for zero waste, frugal, clutter-free living.)

Although I’d had my reservations about The Happiness Project, I enjoyed Happier At Home from page 1. Gretchen’s writing voice is different to her podcast voice. When I first tuned into her podcasts, I remember being quite surprised to hear the way she spoke. I’m not sure why…. Reading another of her books then reminded me of that slightly awkward, nerdy, slightly neurotic type A persona that I found difficult to fully warm to in The Happiness Project. But this time, instead of finding it disconcerting, I actually found it quite comforting to hear it again.

And so, I read about what is, essentially, her second happiness project, this one on a slightly smaller scale, set in and around her home. And, just as with The Happiness Project, I was inspired to take away from it some “Try this at home”s (find out what this is on her podcast- although it’s pretty self-explanatory!)

Specifically,

  • Go shelf by shelf (declutter- a constant mission of mine)
  • Kiss in the morning, kiss at night (Give proofs of love)
  • Give gold stars (Acknowledge others’ good deeds verbally not just mentally)
  • Go on adventures (Big and small, with both Mr L and the little Ls)
  • Give warm greetings and farewells (a kiss at least, hello and goodbye)
  • Dig Deep (My personal commandments need revisiting I think)
  • Suffer for fifteen minutes (Get a potentially tedious and large scale chore done little by little each day- mine, as Gretchen’s was, is collating some family photo albums.)
  • Follow a threshold ritual (Literally, cross the threshold of your house with gratitude)
  • Eat like a yogi (I added this one myself- more on this later, it’s a work in progress)

I wonder if I’d have been better off reading Happier At Home before The Happiness Project. Despite coming first, The Happiness Project is on a much bigger scale and was a bit full on for me. Mine kind of fizzled. This one’s much less rigid. It’s just going to aim to incorporate these habits into my day, rather than ticking off resolution charts or writing time lines.

We’ll see how we go!

 

 

Zero Waste Update

Well, it’s been ­­­3 weeks since my Zero Waste aspirations began. So far I’ve been quite excited and impressed by the changes we’ve made and by how easy they have been.

So far we’ve managed to:

Refuse plastic bags for our bread and bakery products. This has simply been a matter of requesting a paper bag for the (numerous!) hot cross buns we buy (“Yes, of course no problem!” has been the unanimous reply) and buying our bread from the pick-your-own section of the supermarket. I’ve stopped buying sliced bread as I couldn’t see how, even from Baker’s Delight, this was going to work in a paper bag. Instead I slice my own- I thought the kids would protest about the uneven, more rustic slices, but actually, they haven’t.

Refuse or reduce other packaging

  • Soap- we’re phasing out liquid soap and I’ve ordered some wooden soap dishes online to make it less messy (although to be honest, it’s not too bad but a soap dish which allows the soap to drain and dry between uses should also extend the life of the bar).
  • Bin Inn– our patronage continues and I have bought sugar, washing up liquid, laundry powder, baking soda and buckwheat there. I was excited to see they sell honey and golden syrup as well as canola oil (but alas no olive oil). The other very exciting find was their peanut butter machine- you take your own tub, select smooth, medium or crunchy, and let the machine grind your peanut butter straight into your tub! The kids loved it and so did I!

Ecostore products

  • The toilet brush is great, as toilet brushes go. Not only does it look quite classy (if it’s possible for a toilet brush to look classy) but the bristles are nice and flexible so it cleans brilliantly, and the kids haven’t given it a second glance- I was worried with it not being enclosed that they might want to play with it.
  • I’ve only just finished my regular shampoo (I realised my hair only really needed washing once a week while I’m pregnant- it seems much drier plus I am not exercising so it doesn’t get sweaty), so have only used the Ecostore stuff once. It seemed ok, not very lathery, but I’m sure lather is just some marketing trick to make you feel like you’re getting really clean.
  • Also loving the string bags and no one at the supermarket has had an issue with me buying my fruit and veg in them.
  • The free soap I got dries my skin a bit so I might try another variety next time.
  • I haven’t tried the sanitary products yet.

Dog poo– most of this has gone over the fence with no complaints from the neighbours (human or bovine.)

Bins– I have also cut down on bin liners (we used plastic shopping bags) by not bothering to line the nappy bin in the garage- it stinks anyway so what does it matter- and chucking as much as possible straight in the wheelie bin rather than into a house bin first and filling up a plastic bag. A bin liner now lasts 2 or 3 days, instead of less than 1. This creates the illusion of less rubbish, certainly, as everything packs in tighter, but I like to think we actually have been throwing less out too.

Deodorant- the bicarb/cornflour/coconut oil concoction became difficult to use as the weather has got cooler, as it’s not as soft and easy to apply. I could add more coconut oil I suppose but I’ve actually taken to just using cornstarch (J&J at the moment but I am going to try and move to plain kitchen cornstarch) and perfume with no complaints (from myself or others!)

Picking up rubbish at the beach– I felt like a total hippy but I picked up a small bag (yes ok it would have been better to use a bucket) of rubbish- cigarette butts, wrappers, bits of plastic etc at the beach yesterday.

Resuable coffee cup– we have started taking them out when we get a takeaway coffee (which is actually not all that often anyway). Even Mr L was on board with this today.

Marmalade– I made a big batch of marmalade for the grand total of about $7 this week- made the equivalent of about 5 jars from the shops. Of course it has been bottled in reused jam jars I’d been saving.

My next goal is to source and try out the following:

  •  Shampoo bars- dog & human
  • Bamboo shower puff
  • Bamboo toothbrush
  • Bamboo babywipes
  • Toilet rolls made from recycled paper AND free of plastic packaging
  • Containers for meat from shops etc

 We’ll see how we go!

Zero Waste Home

So I came across a blog called “Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson a few weeks ago while reading an article on reducing plastic consumption in your life.

Bea is a French woman living in the US, married to an American guy with 2 children. Essentially, she describes how she lived a fairly “traditional” French childhood in suburban Provence (it never occurred to me that they had suburbs in Provence as I’ve always assumed it was all quaint medieval villages and lavender fields but evidently there are suburbs too!) then when she moved to the US she found herself embroiled in the “American Dream”- big house, big garden, 2 gas guzzling vehicles and a disposable lifestyle.

Motivated by wanting to live in a slightly more atmospheric, inner suburb of whichever US city she’s in, but unable to afford the same scale of house, they embraced minimalism to allow them to downsize and move closer into town.

Eventually she transitioned to and embraced not just having less stuff but creating less waste.

I found the book really quite interesting as it generally seemed to support the feelings I already had about being green and recycling (ie that recycling surely can’t be the “chuck stuff out totally guilt-free” card everyone seems to regard it as). She doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail about the process of recycling, its byproducts and the like, but she does touch on a few processes and suggests that the real problem is plastic. According to Bea, plastics are rarely recycled into equally sustainable products, they are often “downcycled” into products that can’t then be recycled a second time and go to land/ocean fill.

Her philosophy, as I had kind of already embraced myself, is to minimise the amount of stuff that comes into your house, that’s the only way to really minimise the stuff that goes out again. Her 5 Rs are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. Fairly self- explanatory, but to spell it out,

  • Refuse as much stuff as possible
  • Reduce the amount of stuff you do let into your house
  • Reuse it (as opposed to recycling it)
  • Recycle and Rot (composting) are then last resorts before throwing it in the bin

Some of her tips go a bit far for my liking (each to their own, but she advocates dusting cocoa powder on your cheeks instead of foundation and I don’t fancy a load of flies swarming around me or smelling like a hot chocolate) but she has motivated me to try and reduce as much as possible the amount of stuff we chuck out and to focus, first and foremost, on cutting down our plastic waste.

Some things I’d already been doing for a while, like:

  • Avoiding cling wrap as much as possible- for about a year I’ve been using reusable sandwich wraps. There are several available on the market and many of them are quite expensive, cashing in on a combination of the food-safety paranoia and the environmental concerns surrounding plastics. I must say I found some very reasonably priced ones at Howards Storage World in Australia and I have no idea what their environmental or food safety profile is, but having bought only two and used them all year, surely that’s better than the roll of cling wrap I would otherwise have gone through?
  • Re-using paper in the printer. I used to get a lot of it from work- for some reason my old workplace in Sydney was so wasteful with paper and you’d find reams (literally) of paper printed on one side only that people had left in the printer, I’m not sure why- printed in error I guess, so I’d swipe it and take it home to use. The main problems were I’d actually acquire more than I could use (I don’t print much stuff out at home) and a couple of times I had to be careful about ending up with printouts which had sensitive information on the reverse side.
  • Composting- in Sydney this was a no-brainer as we had a garden we could use the compost in and also chickens, whose poo really needs mixing with compost as it’s too harsh to put straight on the soil (apparently). This had fallen by the wayside since moving to Auckland, mainly because we didn’t have any sort of garden beds (or chickens) to benefit from compost, also because we had nowhere convenient to put a compost bin and finally because every house in NZ (our new one included) seems to have a waste disposal system, which I have always considered an American thing. Anyway we have resurrected our composting habit- it’s amazing how much goes into it and how satisfying it is!
  • Reducing electricity & gas consumption- this was always easy to comply with as it reduces your bills. Happily our new house has instant gas hot water with a thermostat, meaning I have been able to turn down the temperature our hot water is heated to. I could never see the logic of paying to heat water to hotter than your skin can stand, only to cool it down by mixing it with cold water for a shower. It’s not quite as hot as it could be for washing dishes, but it’s fine.
  • Resuable water bottle- I HATE paying to buy water when I’m out, so this is easy.
  • Resuable coffee cup- Mr L and I both have these, however our main motivation was again financial, we’d use them to take coffee from home rather than taking them to cafes to get them filled. But I’ve done it a couple of times now and they haven’t thought I’m a complete weirdo! It’s not that hard. I had also been taking mine to work, to make cups of tea in rather than using the Styrofoam rubbish they have there.

Since reading Zero Waste Home, some of the new things I’ve looked into have included:

  • Buying bread in paper bags as much as possible. I always reused the plastic bags our bread came in, usually for cleaning up after the dog (see below) but felt bad. It’s been pretty easy and hasn’t confined us to expensive Bakers Delight bread (although we do go there quite a bit anyway), turns out our local budget supermarket has very nice loaves of bread which you self-serve in paper bags. Of course, Bea would suggest getting your own cloth bread bag (she uses a pillow case) and doing without the bag altogether, but then what do you store it in when you get home?
  • Packaging- with other products, too, I’ve been much more aware of packaging and trying to stick to a hierarchy of none-paper-glass-plastic. I realised (with horror) that the bars of soap I’ve been buying to use in the shower come in non-recyclable plasticky paper wrapping. I bought some in simple cardboard boxes and have now found some without wrappers at all. They are a little more expensive, but are still less than $3 per bar. I also agonized over my choice of honey in the supermarket, feeling ashamed of my convenient plastic flip-top squeezey bottle- I mean how hard is it to take the top off and use a knife??* But there was no honey in a glass jar, I couldn’t believe it!! So I got a screw top plastic jar which looked like it could be used again, instead of the flimsy, throwaway soft plastic things that most of the honey seems to come in here.   [*I might add that I have previously been down the “which honey container to buy” decision tree, and what led me to the squeezy bottle (when the jars are way cheaper and would ordinarily have won) is the fact that I HATE it when people leave crumbs in the honey/marmalade/jam/butter and even more when there are traces of butter in the non-butter spreads, it grosses me out. I even go so far as to use a clean knife (not the buttery one) after buttering the toast to apply the spread, in order to avoid contaminating it. I realise not everyone shares my OCD tendencies and so to avoid irritation I resorted to buying the squeezer. Anyway, I digress.]
  • And on the subject of soap, for years I have been a liquid soap user, again, not being able to stand the soggy mess on the sink that collects with bars. But I figured it’s a lot of plastic, so when we finish the liquid stuff we’ve got, I’m going to try bars for handwashing once again. (I never got into shower gel for the simple reason it’s so expensive compared to bars of soap, so I’m sure I can cope with bars at the sinks).
  • New shops- I ventured to Ecostore, which I had always dismissed as a complete rip-off in the past, but actually some of their stuff is ok. I came away with a toilet brush (our cheap metal and –gasp- plastic one had fallen apart after about 5 uses, so I bought a wooden handled, natural bristled one, with a wooden & ceramic stand. The brush is compostable so when it gets grotty you chuck in on the compost heap. Then you just buy a replacement brush to put in the old stand. I also bought some organic cotton string bags, which I put fruit and veg in at the supermarket (the things that are too much hassle to have loose) and some all-natural, compostable sanitary pads which were also cheaper than I expected. NB I will NOT be composting these as I think it’s kind of gross for the other household members, but I figured they’ll decompose quicker in the rubbish tip than the normal sort. Some shampoo & conditioner in refillable bottles completed my purchase, and I was rewarded with a free bar of (package free) soap and a lip balm! I was prepared to buy a large tub of laundry detergent, as I quite like the Ecostore stuff, but was disappointed to find they only have a very limited range of products that they’ll refill and their powder detergent isn’t one of them. You can take your containers back but I was told by the woman serving me they recycle them, they don’t refill them. Not like at…..
  • Bin Inn– a chain of sort of health-food shops I suppose is how they describe themselves, but most of their products are in bins sold by weight- you take your own containers which they weigh empty, then weigh again when you’ve put your loot into them! What a fabulous idea. So far I’ve bought rolled oats, sultanas, sunflower seeds, buckwheat, laundry detergent, dry dog food and dog treats. The stuff is reasonably priced- some of it’s more expensive than in the supermarket but some of it is a lot cheaper so I think it breaks even. There’s one about 20 mins drive from us, so it’s probably an awful waste of petrol to go there all the time, but once I get my system going it might work quite well!
  • Dog- I always put her mess into plastic bags then in the bin, but our new house backs onto a big overgrown field whose only users are cows, so I have started chucking her poo over the fence into the long grass. I’m sure the cows won’t mind, given how much mess they themselves make. And when it’s exposed to sun, rain and flies, dog poo doesn’t hang around that long anyway, certainly not compared to sitting in a plastic bag being preserved on a rubbish heap.
  • And finally, I have also tried making my own deodorant!! Using 1/4 cup bicarb soda, 1/4 cup cornflour and 4 tsp coconut oil. It’s ok, it’s like a stick deodorant only not in a very convenient dispenser (you rub it on with your fingers). I’m not a super sweaty, smelly person, luckily, or I don’t think I’d get away with it. I have been a bit sweatier than usual, but I have about 4 bottles of perfume that take me aaages to get through so I figured I’d start using them daily and they can supplement the deodorant. I generally buy fragrance-free deodorant anyway, and have always balked at the cost of the aerosol stuff. As luck would have it, I didn’t make it to Aldi during our recent trip to Sydney to buy any more of their cheap, perfectly acceptable, mildly-fragranced stuff anyway, and I was already resenting paying $7 a can for branded stuff here.

It’d be nice to get to the point where we don’t have to put up with meat, cheese, fish & deli products in their inevitable plastic wrapping but to do this I think I’m going to have to start shopping at small local shops who’ll take a BYO container and put the stuff into it. An idea I like in theory, but the convenience of a supermarket instead of 5 different outlets, particularly with 2 kids in tow, just wins out most of the time.

Will we ever do away with plastic altogether? No. And I don’t think we’ll achieve completely zero plastic waste either. Plastic has its uses. I have a lot of plastic tubs already and I can’t see the point of chucking them out to buy other substitutes- I’ll use them until they fall apart (ideally forever)- surely that’s better than them going to landfill now? Plus, plastic is really useful for keeping things fresh! I keep my vegetables in plastic bags in the fridge so they don’t go soft. And plastic is better than paper for keeping bread from going stale. What I am trying to do is have designated sturdy plastic bags which I can reuse many times over before they need to be thrown out.

 Anyway, we’ll see, It’s a start, at least!

Branding

I never thought too hard about why I objected to branding when it came to kids’ stuff. I just found something about it instinctively inappropriate. I could never really understand people who declared: “Oh my child loves The Wiggles/Hi Five/Peppa Pig” (for the record I actually do quite like Peppa Pig but that’s another story.) I mean, as the parent surely you are the one who determines what your child is exposed to? I realise once they start school it’s a slightly different story, but I knew for a fact that MY child would NOT love “The Wiggles” because I find them intensely irritating and would therefore not let him watch them. (So far, so good). One of the mothers in my mothers group (she actually left after a couple of months but we stayed Facebook friends) declared that, at 6 months old, her daughter could say “Dora”. My first thought was “Yeah right!” and my second was “How tragic”.

I’ve always consciously tried to avoid branded toys. We accidentally ended up with a Thomas engine, which Master L refers to as “Thomas” because it took us months to notice the names of the vehicles were written on the bottom and this green engine’s name is, apparently, Luke. So we got that wrong, but who cares? I’ve always avoided branded clothes, cartoon-character and action-hero pyjamas (which is quite difficult actually), I guess because I didn’t like the idea of “forcing” my child to become a fan of something specific, preferring him to form an interest in trucks/animals/planes in their own right.

And so various scenarios have popped up over the years which have reinforced my aversion to branding and allowed me to articulate some of my specific objections

  1. Cost- When shopping for Lego for my (now 10 year old) nephew, I was shocked to see that plain-old use-your-imagination-and-build-your-own-thing Lego was half the price of Harry Potter/Barbie/Star Wars Lego. Some of the parts for the Thomas and Friends train set cost $100!!! Crazy- $100 for a kid’s toy which you can’t even use in isolation!
  2. Duplication- Identifying something with a brand encourages buying more stuff and duplicating kids’ belongings. In the last couple of weeks I have started thinking about Christmas presents for my little nephews. I liked last year’s strategy of giving experiences rather than stuff, but circumstances have made that much harder this year. So I asked my sister-in-law what she might want for her kids (who have so many toys they literally don’t know what to do with them). She told me “Any of the Thomas and Friends wooden railway set, or any Postman Pat or Fireman Sam stuff.” Now, I don’t have a particular problem with Postman Pat, I actually quite like Fireman Sam (Mr L’s first language is Welsh and so we have the Welsh-language version Fireman Sam DVDs, which helps me justify letting Master L watch them considerably) and, as it happens, I can’t stand Thomas, but it wasn’t my opinion of the particular TV shows that influenced my reaction. Whatever happened to kids having “a fire engine” or “a train set” (which Master L does, in fact, have)? Why do kids now have to have the Thomas train set AND the Chuggington train set, or Postman Pat’s van AND Fireman Sam’s jeep?? My 10 year old nephew now has millions of Lego bits and pieces because he has about 20 different Star Wars Lego models. Sadly, I’m not sure if his brain or the Lego is adaptable enough to build something non-Star Wars with the millions of bricks he has, or if he has even thought to try.
  3. Fashion status- And apart from the cost and the needless duplication of plastic and metal bits and pieces which seems to be a way of life now in our throw-away society, the branding of kids’ toys promotes a sense of fashion status very early on. I know Master L, at almost 3, is too young to be aware of this, but I bet by the time he turns 4 and certainly by the time he turns 5, he will be aware that other kids have the Thomas train set and he has the generic version and that there will be status associated with that. Having said that, I know that as a 7 year old, I always felt slightly envious of kids who had Barbie dolls and all the Barbie paraphernalia that went with it. Even with my slightly less cool Sindy doll, I almost never got the “proper” Sindy clothes for her to wear, I had to make do with the £2 version from the town market. And my friend who had a plastic doll she used to call her Sindy doll would receive scornful comments at school such as “That’s not a proper Sindy doll” (including from me). I do recall a certain sense of missing out from not having the brand-named versions of most things, although on the rare occasion we were given something “proper” (like the My Little Ponies from my uncle), I realized pretty quickly they were actually fairly boring. I don’t want to be the clichéd, uncool, crochet-wearing mother who says “Just because everyone else has it doesn’t mean you have to have it too” but by the same token, I like the fact that I’m now not really a brand-name kind of person. I don’t buy designer (very often) and if I do, it’s because it’s the best one I can find and I can justify the expense rather than simply because a specific person has lent their name to it.

So, for now, we will continue to avoid Thomas and Postman Pat and I will no doubt read this post in a couple of years and smile at my idealism. Next week for his birthday, Master L will receive a mini soccer goal post set and some yellow diggers. All wrapped in Lightning McQueen wrapping paper.

Moving away from Christmas “stuff”

I read this awesome article recently- The Gift of Not Giving a Thing. It summed up many of the themes and ideals I’ve been thinking about a lot since my daughter was born 6 months ago.

I’m not sure why her birth triggered this way of thinking. I suspect the upheaval and the change in dynamic that comes with the arrival of a new family member subconsciously prompted a re-evaluation of what’s important. Not just in a conceptual way but also from a practical point of view. You have stuff arriving by the armful if you’ve just had a baby girl when you already have a boy. “Whatever will she wear?!?!” Not only does this little creature seem to outgrow a size of baby clothes every month but she must apparently wear pink and you only have blue!! (Actually I had white and grey, baby number 1’s early clothes were all very unisex as we didn’t know what we were having the first time round- perfect for handing down to a baby sister, or so I thought, but our friends and relatives seemed to have other ideas and went shopping all over again- in pink and purple.)

When Master L was a baby, I remember spending time looking through his clothes, moving the things he’d outgrown to the “too small” box with mixed feelings of loss (he’ll never fit into a 000 again!) but also excitement that he was gaining weight, getting bigger and stronger and more interactive (and therefore more interesting) with every 0 he dropped. Plus there was a whole wardrobe-full of fresh, never worn, bigger sizes to be tried on. With Miss L (her older brother now an inquisitive toddler) I had significantly fewer opportunities to be sorting through all this stuff, clearing it out, keeping it tidy etc and so the extra stuff actually became work, not just an unnecessary luxury. Not to mention the space issue.

So after Miss L’s birth, I became quite interested in minimalism. A passionate de-clutterer already, I was still constantly amazed at the amount of STUFF we somehow accumulate, how little of it we use and, when we go away on holidays, how little I miss it and how much simpler life seems to be. My preoccupation with “organising” blogs gave way to a new passion for “minimalist” blogs. The best thing is, you don’t feel bad erasing them from your bookmarks bar when you’ve got the gist of their message- it’s decluttering!

I have friends and relatives who are major clutter-bugs. Some have small houses, a bit too much stuff and are just a bit messy, but can clear up when necessary. Others live in houses where you can hardly move for all the stuff and when you do, you tread on something or knock something else over. When I visit these people I indulge in de-cluttering fantasies. I imagine going through their houses with sturdy garbage bags, and THROWING STUFF OUT… shopper dockets, junk mail, old magazines, expired food from the fridge, worn-out towels, dishes whose patterns have been washed off over the years. Chipped mugs and glasses, little plastic bits and bobs from the kids’ board games. Paper clips and elastic bands, mismatching plates and bowls, plastic takeaway containers spewing from the kitchen cupboards. The almost-empty bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body scrubs, moisturisers from the bathroom! GET RID OF IT… ALL OF IT.

Anyway, I digress. But not far.

Ironically, babies and all their associated paraphernalia are partly responsible for my newly invigorated intolerance of clutter. Nothing prompts people to go out and buy you STUFF like a new baby. I should know, I have been the offensive buyer for years, I love buying baby stuff. Don’t really know why… but the fact is people feel compelled to BUY things every time anyone they know has a baby. In some ways this is good. You don’t need to buy any baby clothes, other people do it for you. Your child could easily last until its first birthday without you dressing it in a single item of your choosing. They also buy you all sorts of other stuff, which can be broken down as follows:

  • 10%- really useful. About half of these things you would never have discovered if it were not for your generous friends and you are really glad you did, because they are really useful. I put my Big Softies cloth nappies (which I use for just about anything except wrapping my babies’ bums in) and my L’il Fraser wrap in this category.
  • 70%- not especially useful but you feel compelled to use it anyway, the cloth bibs that hang too low or soak through straight away, that kind of thing.
  • 15%- stuff you hate but feel obliged to use as you feel too guilty to just shove it in the cupboard unworn. Many items of clothing fall into this category. That brown all-in-one that’s the wrong season, wrong fit, wrong shade of brown, in fact, just WRONG but you put your child in it once and spend the whole time apologising for it when you imagine other people give your child funny looks.
  • 5%- this stuff goes totally unused. It’s just too hideous, or too complicated, or too weird. Those pre-shaped Velcro-fastened wraps you can’t figure out how to put on your baby. The breast-feeding modesty cape (I refer you back to back to Big Softies- that’s one of their uses should you, rightly or wrongly, feel the need to be modest).

Most of my friends, my sister and my sister-in law have children now. Nothing strikes me as more futile than buying stuff for OPCs who you know, full-well, already have too much stuff. You aren’t sure what to get them but feel you have to get them a gift every birthday and every Christmas. You buy them stuff you don’t really like that much and you know the kid doesn’t need but you hope the parents will think it great nonetheless. You don’t really care what happens to your gift, you have Done Your Duty. And that duty arises largely because they will buy your kids stuff and chances are it will be useless.

So, in effect, instead of buying your own child something they need (which, generally, is nothing) and something that you also like, you traipse to the shops, wander round, hand over your money, wrap and give someone else’s child a gift and, in exchange, receive stuff you hate. This is stupid. Sorry, but it is. Yet remarkably few people have the guts to say “Let’s not exchange gifts this year, we have enough, the kids have enough, and what’s more I’m sick of taking all the stuff you give us to the charity shop when I can’t sell it on Gumtree or bring myself to re-gift it”.

I spent the day before Master L’s 2nd birthday sorting through his toys, getting rid of things that I never liked but had kept to be polite, making way for the influx of stuff that I knew would arrive on his birthday. He was overwhelmed on the day. He only learnt what a present is this year. We held some of the gifts back, unopened, for Christmas. We held some of them back as he received duplicates and now we have to spend time returning or exchanging them. Nice thought, but now for a birthday treat he gets dragged to the shopping centre (not his favourite place) while I exchange it…. And buy bribery smoothies and fruit buns and rides in Wiggles cars (well actually they’re free because I’m too mean to fork out the $2 to put in the slot, he doesn’t know the difference). Awesome present, thanks.

So for Christmas this year, we tried to go as much as possible for experience gifts or vouchers:

  • Parents- restaurant voucher
  • Sister & kids and also sister in law & kids- zoo passes
  • Mother in law- spa voucher
  • Father in law- clothing voucher

I hope to go to the zoo with my nieces and nephews, spend time with my sister & sister in law and really enjoy the experience instead of just feeling like a dutiful sister. We haven’t added a single item of clutter to anyone’s house and I’m giving them something they can enjoy, remember and talk about afterwards, which they probably wouldn’t otherwise have done. (Ok, so my father in law will be wearing his gift but at least he gets something useful that he likes.)

My friend with kids who we usually buy for (each of us trying to guess the other one’s tastes and never getting it quite right) said “Let’s not bother this year”. And so we plan to spend the money (in fact, probably less) on a girly afternoon tea in the New Year and a couple of fun hours enjoying each other’s company, sans children, rather than rushing round the shops, kids in tow, buying stuff in desperation and then swapping.

Do I go and buy extra stuff to make up for the presents my kids and I did not receive? No, I don’t think so. A good indicator they don’t really need anything in the first place. Do I make an effort to see people instead? I intend to. And if it’s too much trouble to meet up, well then I’ve gained on two fronts.